The Debate over the Young “Disadvantaged Child”: Preschool Intervention, Developmental Psychology, and Compensatory Education in the 1960s and Early 1970s
by Barbara Beatty — 2012
I focus on the role of preschool intervention and developmental psychology researchers in defining the concept of the “disadvantaged child” and in designing and evaluating remedies to alleviate educational “disadvantages” in young children. I argue that preschool interventions concentrated especially on compensating for supposedly deficient language acquisition patterns in interactions between low-income African American mothers and their children. The language of the discourse of the “disadvantaged child,” with its terminology of cultural deficits, thus mirrored research on supposed language deficits in young children. I begin with a brief overview of the history of psychology and social science research on deprivation and the black family. Next, I examine three pre–Head Start preschool intervention models that used different methods to enhance black children’s language development: the Institute for Developmental Studies begun in New York City in 1960 by Martin and Cynthia Deutsch; the Perry Preschool Project begun in Ypsilanti, Michigan, in 1962 by David Weikart; and the laboratory preschool begun at the University of Illinois in 1964 by Carl Bereiter and Siegfried Engelmann. I also examine an influential 1965 study by University of Chicago psychologists Robert Hess and Virginia Shipman, which compared effects of the childrearing styles of black mothers from upper- and lower-income backgrounds on children’s language and cognitive development. I then trace some of the critiques that emerged in the 1960s and early 1970s in which preschool intervention research was used as evidence that compensatory education was a failure, and criticized for imposing white middle-class stereotypes on poor black children. I conclude with a plea for a balanced approach to interpreting the many factors that may hinder some children’s performance in school.
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